PhD Careers

PhD Careers

QS Staff Writer

Updated January 28, 2022 Updated January 28

A new report reveals the surprisingly broad range of career paths taken by PhD graduates – proving that starting a PhD doesn’t necessarily mean a lifetime in academia.

While the PhD qualification has traditionally led graduates to a career in academia or academic-related research, demand from the private and public sectors, has opened up a variety of opportunities.

There has always been an assumption that the majority of those graduating from university and grad school with a PhD remain in an academic environment.

However, evidence from the UK, published in June 2009, indicates that a PhD degree genuinely qualifies its holder for an enormously wide range of careers.

Variation by subject area

The report, "What do researchers do?" indicates that employment patterns vary enormously by subject area, with more computer science PhD graduates, for example, employed as IT professionals, while almost half of all social science PhD holders gained employment in education.

Over one-third of all PhD graduates were engaged in research-specific roles, while 23% worked as research staff in higher education institutions and 14% as lecturers in higher education.

Although the education sector was the largest employer of physical sciences and engineering PhD's, with 41% of graduates absorbed in this field in 2007, a significant proportion ofgraduates were also employed in manufacturing, with 25% and business, finance and IT, with a further 20%.

Research indicates that a PhD degree genuinely qualifies its holder for an enormously wide range of careers. One of the academic fields of PhD study that has been in particulardemand by private sector employers in recent years is biotechnology.

According to Australia-based Dr John Ballard, founding member of BioAngels, a not-for-profit association of business executives offering investment opportunities in the life sciences, "There are more people employed by the five biotechnology companies located in one suburb in South Australia than the combined employment in the biochemistry, microbiology and biotechnology departments of all three South Australian universities."

Salary prospects

Many international students hope that the qualification will result in a higher salary on graduation.

Professor Mark Western, from Australia's University of Queensland, confirms that on completion of a PhD from one of the eight leading Australian universities, students attracted an average salary of US$56,000 in an online survey conducted in 2008.

He adds, "The majority of PhD graduates were satisfied with their jobs and were earning salaries that they were happy with."

While countries around the world are tightening up their immigration procedures and only offering international students the opportunity to work in the country they have studied in for short periods of time after graduation, at the PhD level, the opportunity for long-term migration is greatly increased. 

Skills shortages dominate many of the key developed economies with the result that highly skilled PhD graduates are both attractive and increasingly in demand by countries whose workforce lacks the expertise in key areas.

Universities and grad schools seeking to secure the next generation of academic talent continue to recruit academic staff directly from the pool of graduating PhD students.

Changing global picture

However, the current economic situation may be affecting the appointment of new academic members of staff in a number of countries. The level of competition for jobs in US universities and colleges in particular is likely to increase, but the picture is somewhat different in other countries.

In both Australia and Germany, the "greying" of the academic population is already resulting in a greater demand for new academic members of staff to replace those retiring.

While the prospects for PhD graduates seeking academic careers varies from country to country, the continuing growth of a globalized higher education market has had a positive impact on the appointment of new academic members of staff.

Emerging universities in countries as diverse as Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and those throughout Central Asia are seeking new doctoral graduates to help build their reputations. reports a staggering 129% increase in PhD student jobs across all sectors.

Knowledge economies driving demand

The demand for academic and other jobs requiring a PhD, however, is already increasing, driven by the need of countries to secure highly talented migrants to meet the changing requirements of their own knowledge economies., a specialist website for highly skilled candidates, reports a staggering 129% increase in PhD student jobs across all sectors in the period November 2007 to April 2009.

One key element in international PhD education relevant to students seeking employment in either the academic or commercial sectors is the development of programs to ensure that the skills gained by students are relevant to the labor market as a whole.

Universities have introduced new taught elements to their PhD programs to ensure that the skills of students are more in line with both a rigorous academic approach as well as the need for high level graduates in a range of employment sectors.

Although the motivation for embarking on a PhD program varies from person to person, the present reality dictates that gaining a job soon after graduation is an important aim of all students.

With universities, industries, governments and public sector employers all prioritising the recruitment of staff with graduate qualifications, PhD holders are likely to be in demand for many years to come. Perhaps now is the perfect time to equip yourself with the skills to enter the competition for global talent.

This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in March 2021


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